Commentary

The X-Files: A Deep Dive Into Mulder and Scully’s Love Story (Which Began Waaaay Before You Thought It Did)

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With network shows wrapping early and endless streaming options at our disposal, the communal viewing experience is becoming a rarity. Enter the TVLine Binge Club, a new opportunity for everyone to get back on the same page — or at least the same channel — to reflect on classic shows that once brought us all together.

The legacy of Fox’s The X-Files is that it used science-fiction to explore the greater mysteries of life, making existential quandaries (Is humanity alone in the universe? Is there a grand design to life?) more palatable by cloaking them in stories about extra terrestrials and the ability to bend reality.

Which is great and all, but all I want to talk about right now is something of far greater importance: Exactly when did Mulder and Scully decide they were each other’s OSP (one spooky pairing)?

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about the show, you know two things about me: I’ve been a fan since Season 1, and I ‘shipped Mr. and Mrs. Spooky long before I even knew what that term meant. Years of my wishful thinking were transformed into canon when the show subtly but surely hooked up David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson‘s characters in Season 7, a romantic relationship that continued in fits and starts through the (first) series finale, one deeply flawed movie and two revival seasons.

But I wanna go deep on the love story of these two adorable weirdos, which many people believe got underway toward the tail end of the show’s initial run but which I’ll argue started much earlier. So think of this edition of Binge Club as a deep dive that’ll complement your already fervent devotion to the series.

Or, more simply: When did the FBI’s Most Unwanted start wanting each other?

We’ll get this started by looking back over a handful of episodes that best prove my theory, starting with an early Monster-of-the-Week outing.

The X-Files Mulder Scully Love Romance Relationship1. ‘IRRESISTIBLE’ (S2,E13)
Scully and Mulder have a fully fledged partnership by the time this mid-Season 2 episode comes around. Their initial wariness of each other has disappeared, and their friendship is a pretty solid, if new, thing. (Her alien abduction, return and subsequent fight for life earlier in the season might’ve had something to do with that. It’s like that old saying: You never know what you’ve got until Duane Barry steps in to eff things up.)

Scully hasn’t been back at work all that long when the agents investigate what turns out to be a serial killer case in Minneapolis, so she’s understandably shaky throughout the hour. But she brushes off Mulder’s concern — with probably the most repetitions of her signature “I’m fine” that we’ll get until her cancer arc — and soldiers through… until the serial killer, a fetishist named Donnie Pfaster, rams her car and kidnaps her.

I still remember watching this episode when it first aired, mainly because of the way Duchovny delivers one of his lines. While Mulder and the local authorities desperately search for Scully, the frustrated G-man remarks that people see Elvis every day all over the country, but “no one saw a pretty woman being forced off the road in a rental?!”

Maybe it’s the desperation in Duchovny’s voice. Maybe it’s the look of anguish on his face. But for me, this is the moment I mark as the first evidence that Mulder feels something deeper for the redhead whose presence irked him just over a season before. I clearly recall thinking, “He loves her,” while watching the episode back in the day. And the way he gently approaches Scully after she’s saved from Pfaster’s creepy clutches, coupled with the way he holds her as she cries in relief, doesn’t do anything to make me change my mind.

Other observations from “Irresistible”:
* Scully is shocked to learn that Mulder dragged them halfway across the country, even though “You knew this wasn’t UFO-related from the start?!” Oh honey, given how often this will happen to you in the coming years, your naivete here is kinda cute.
* Because the characters are so buttoned-up at this point in the series, Scully’s therapy session with Karen Kossef is a nice glimpse into how she’s really handling her return to regular life. When Kossef asks if there’s a problem trusting Mulder, Scully quickly says no but then illuminates a theme in their relationship that will play out for quite some time: “I trust him as much as anyone. I trust him with my life” but “I don’t want him to know how much this is bothering me. I don’t want him to feel like he has to protect me.”
* Is Pfaster a demon? At this point, it’s very open to interpretation, but super scary nevertheless.

The X-Files Mulder Scully Love Romance Relationship2. ‘PUSHER’ (S3,E17)
Yet another MOTW hour — this one about Robert Modell, a man who can get people to do just about anything via the power of suggestion — serves as a way to illustrate Mulder’s increasing feelings for Scully… and possibly hers for him?

Let’s deal with Dr. Scully first. She looks utterly wrecked as Mulder dons a bulletproof vest to go into the hospital and find Modell: There’s a good chance he won’t make it out, and the normally stoic Scully is having a hard time with that. When he passes her his gun, lest Modell trick him into using it on someone innocent, there’s a long moment where the partners kinda hold hands. Is this standard operating procedure? I think not.

Later, when Modell involves Mulder in a game of Russian roulette with a security guard’s weapon, Mulder hardly fights when asked to put the gun to his own head (thank goodness it doesn’t fire) but rallies all of his internal fortitude to stop himself from pulling the trigger when Modell has him point it at Scully. “Scully, run,” Mulder grits out, packing a LOT of emotion into two words. Eventually Scully saves the day, but the close call takes a toll on both partners.

Still, is an emotional hangover enough reason for Scully to clasp Mulder’s hand again at the episode’s conclusion, as he remarks that Modell will never regain consciousness? Or, instead, is it just enough of a push to embolden Scully into showing just a hint of her growing feelings for her partner as she says, “I say we don’t let him take up another minute of our time”? (Of course, I’m going with the latter.)

Other observations from “Pusher”:
* I always forget how dark, from a lighting standpoint, this show was. That search of Modell’s home keeps pretty much everyone and everything in shadow for the entire scene.
* Mulder’s frequent, during-work-hours references to his porn predilection: so goofy then, so problematic now!

Here’s where I’d like to point out that while I think Mulder fell for Scully the way he did literally everything else — with abandon and without considering the consequences — I’m of the mind that Scully fought the attraction for quite some time. AS WELL SHE SHOULD HAVE. The guy’s a mess! Plus, y’know, she also had a cancer diagnosis to deal with in the middle of all of this. Which brings us to…

The X-Files Mulder Scully Love Romance Relationship3. ‘MEMENTO MORI’ (S4,E14)
Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that we now know the show is never going to give us a satisfying resolution to its unwieldy alien colonization mythology, and that the question of “Who messed with Scully’s reproductive organs?” is going to have a really icky resolution in Season 11. Instead, let’s focus on how hard Scully leans on Mulder when she learns she has cancer, and how hard he is spun by the news.

“You’re the only one I’ve called,” she tells him near the top of the hour, when she reveals that she has an inoperable nasopharyngeal tumor — a diagnosis that seems to gut him even more than it guts her. Part of what I love about this episode is how both agents deal with a devastating development by being their most authentic selves, only at roughly 1000 percent. Scully hangs on to cold science until it nearly kills her; Mulder decides that doing some “funky poaching” by breaking into a high security research facility is really the only option.

Throughout the hour, Scully’s heartbreaking journal entries — which we learn are really just part of a long letter to Mulder — reveal what she’s truly feeling: that he is her strength, she feels him close, and she’s giving him permission to go on without her. Eventually, once Scully’s doctor is revealed as one of the bad guys, Moose and Squirrel are reunited in the hospital hallway. “The truth will save you, Scully,” Mulder says, hugging her close. “I think it’ll save both of us.” Though he only kisses her on the forehead (in the version that aired, anyway), you look at that thumb action as he feathers back her hair — as well as the glance they exchange afterward — and tell me that we aren’t witnessing a new level of connection here.

Other observations from “Memento Mori”:
* Duchovny’s line reading of “I will be right there” when Scully asks him to bring her overnight bag to the hospital is the perfect amount of broken.
* If the clones Mulder talks to at the research facility have been created from the ova of all of the abducted women… shouldn’t they look different from each other?
* Don’t Scully’s eggs, which Mulder pockets from the lab, need to be kept on ice?

The X-Files Mulder Scully Love Romance Relationship4. ‘DETOUR’ (S5,E4)
And now for something completely different! With Scully in remission — and if I had more time, we’d go deep on Mulder’s devastation-turned-elation in “Redux” Parts 1 and 2 (the bedside weeping!) — the agents go on an FBI teamwork skill-building trip that turns into the flirtiest of MOTW eps. It’s as though Mulder and Scully have realized what they really mean to each other and that there may be something mutual brewing, and the impromptu night they spend in the forest showcases it all.

An injured and loopy Mulder obliquely suggests that they get naked and crawl into a sleeping bag… to conserve body heat, of course! “Well maybe it if rains sleeping bags, you’ll get lucky,” Scully shoots back, unbothered and maybe even a little interested? They wind up with him falling asleep in her arms as she lovingly sings a (rather flat) version of a Three Dog Night’s classic. Joy to the world, indeed.

Other observations from “Detour”:
* Scully’s bemused resignation to Mulder’s backseat bitching at the start of the episode is very funny.
* “I must remind you, this goes against the Bureau’s policy of male and female agents consorting in the same motel room while on assignment,” Scully jokes while bringing Mulder some wine. Lighthearted looks good on Scully; too bad we very rarely saw it.
* Fun guest-star appearance by Star Trek: Discovery star (and then-Rent alum) Anthony Rapp as the local tech genius

The X-Files Mulder Scully Love Romance Relationship5. ‘THE UNNATURAL’ (S6,E19)
This episode is best known for being Duchovny’s ­X-Files directing debut, a nearly hour-long flashback that tells the story of Josh Exley, an alien passing as a Black minor league baseball player in 1947. But I’d like to draw your attention to the episode’s final scene, in which Mulder summons Scully to an empty baseball field for “a very special, very early or very late birthday present.”

He’s going to teach her how to hit a baseball, and he’s going to do that by standing behind her and putting his arms around her while she holds the bat. And if you see that as anything other than the most inventive of ploys for him to be physically close to her, I’ve got an invisible ship stored in Roswell, N.M., you might be interested in buying.

The key thing to remember here is that a LOT has happened to these two in the past season. Their office burned down. Their partnership was nearly dissolved. They would’ve kissed in the hallway of Mulder’s apartment building, had a genetically modified and wholly evil bee not interrupted. Scully was kidnapped AGAIN, nearly died AGAIN AGAIN, and Mulder hurried to Antarctica to get her back. They’ve seen some stuff, is all I’m saying, and that kind of thing tends to make people realize what’s important in life.

Or maybe it’s just that Scully realized, after Ed Jerse and Phillip Padget, that any man who is very interested in her is probably going to wind up being some kind of terrible threat to her safety/life, and she should probably stick with the nutjob she knows. Either way, she seems completely down with Mulder’s close talking and even closer holding, and she doesn’t call the baseball thing out for what it clearly is: the equivalent of a teen yawning to stretch his arm around his date in the movie theater. Looks to me like the G-woman is all in. And from what we’ll later learn in “All Things” (S7,E17) and beyond, this is the first — but hardly the last — time the phrase “hips before hands” will have some relevance for these two… if you know what I mean.

Other observations from “The Unnatural”:
* Continuing the Rent guest-star streak, Jesse L. Martin (who’d go on to star in The Flash) plays Exley perfectly in this episode.
* Scully and Mulder’s banter in the beginning (“I scream, you scream, we all scream for Tofutti rice dreamsicles”) is great and a nice counterpoint to the similar, yet deeper, button at the end of the hour.
* I’ll say it again: Ugh, Mulder, why you always gotta talk about your XXX bill?

OK, fellow bingers, let’s talk: Where do you stand on when the Mulder-Scully romance began? Cast your vote below, then drop a comment and let us know why (or why not). I’ll be hanging out in the comment section to reply to any new questions.